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WHEN HENRY COOPER WAS a young man, he was a neer-do-well, a layabout, an idler, according to his father, Henry Sr., and it was true. He loafed through high school and much of college, collecting Fs and Incompletes as though they were merit badges, until when he was twenty, Henry Sr. had had enough:

You will pass your four courses this semester, he announced, and I mean all four of them, or your allowance is stopped, your schooling is stopped, the lease on your automobile is stopped, the rent on your apartment is stopped, and all legal fees you incur for whatever reason will henceforward be paid by you. Is that understood?

Well, in a way. The threat was understood right enough, but what to do about it was far from understood. Pass his courses, all four of them, the very first time? He was used to failing at least twice per subject before enough of the material could wedge itself into his inattentive brain so that he could eke out a D and move on to the next crop of failure. And yet, he couldnt survive a minute without Henry Sr.s cash, and he damn well knew it. What to do?

At this time, Henry was enrolled in a huge Midwestern land grant university, thousands upon thousands of enrolled students, hundreds in every lecture hall, and all of it to cover for the schools football team, which was the actual product being manufactured there. The football team won games, the alumni therefore gave to the university endowment, and the school sailed sunnily on.

Henry was at this place instead of an Ivy League school closer to home, home being a well-off suburb outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, because (a) his father wasnt going to throw away that much money, and (b) no Ivy League school would have touched Henry Cooper with a rake.

So, given the general lack of rigor in this football factory, it shouldnt have been that hard for Henry to scrape along somehow, except that he could just never pay attention. He wasnt stupid; he was merely disengaged. He didnt have anything else in particular to do, but he also had not the slightest interest in what he found himself doing (but had to do, to keep supporting himself with Henry Sr.s money), so how was he to survive this draconian threat?

The hugeness of the university is what saved him. Here and there among his fellow undergraduates were those who were both very good in a particular subject and also impecunious. Henry found four such who were willing to write his papers for him and take his exams for him in the large anonymous examination halls, in return for some small share of Henry Sr.s cash. Every college student in America, prior to legal drinking age, learns how to manufacture fake ID, so it was nothing for Henry to provide his team with student passes featuring his name and their faces. Now, dont ace all this stuff, he warned them. I want to be a C student; my father wouldnt believe anything better.

And so it came about that Henry Cooper became a C student for the rest of his college career, finding new substitutes when necessary, that Henry Sr. became a happy or at least a somewhat less truculent man, and that Henry inadvertently stumbled upon his calling: he became an employment agent.

Bernice entered Henrys office, looking troubled and a little confused. Im sorry, Mr. Cooper, she said.

Dont be sorry, Bernice, Henry told her. Just be sure youre right.

A solid citizen of forty-two, a little puffy around the edges but kept in reasonably trim fit by regular golf and irregular fad diets, Henry Cooper held not the slightest memory of the sweaty subterfuges by which hed managed to obtain his bachelor of arts degree and retain his fathers subsidies. (Subsidies that were now reversed, Henry financing the old bastards condo in Florida on the unstated agreement that Sr. would stay there and Henry would never visit.) All he remembered, really, of his college days was the football games and a few drinking chums.

Today Henry was a successful and respectable businessman who didnt cheat in any way at all, not even on his wife. (Who would have known, in any event, and would promptly have disemboweled him.) These days, the Cooper Placement Service provided him a comfortable living and a position of esteem in his community. He rooted for his alma maters football team and donated to its fund drives. He was the perfect graduate.

He was also an excellent employer, known to be fair and calm, if a little hazy sometimes on details, so Bernice knew, when Henry told her merely to be sure she was right, to wipe away as much as possible the worried look, replace it with a tentative smile, and say, Yes, but, you remember, sir, you told me not to put through any calls from Mr. Monroe Hall.

Oh, God, Monroe. Henry touched the heel of his palm to his forehead. That poor son of a bitch, he said. After all this time, theres finally something around him that isnt his fault. But theres really and truly nothing I can do about it.

I know that, sir.

Ive tried to get him staff, Henry said. We used to golf together. Ive drunk the mans scotch, when it was still permissible to be seen with him. I am not averse to taking a commission from his employees.

Of course not, sir.

But theres simply nothing I can do, Henry said. I hate to duck him, Im not the sort to duck my responsibilities, you know that

Yes, sir.

but what could I say to the man? I cant bear to listen to him plead. What if he started to cry?

Oh, dear.

Exactly. So I dont care what sob story he told you, Im not in the office.

Well, sir, she said, this time he says he wants to buy the agency.

Henry blinked. Buy theBuy my agency? Cooper Placement Service?

Yes, sir.

Thats absurd.

He says, she said, then hesitated.

Go on, go on, he urged her. I know it isnt you saying it, its Monroe saying it.

Yes, sir. He says, since youre no longer interested in the agency, hell take it off your hands and find someone competent to run it.

Why, the gall!

He says, sir, name your price.

Cooper was not tempted, not even for a second, though he knew Hall certainly had the money to back up the offer. But all at once, he was also no longer angry. A fitful empathy with his fellow man had made one of its unwelcome appearances. The poor bastard, he said. He must be desperate.

For some time now, sir.

Hes got all that money, they cant pin anything on him, and yet his life has gone to hell because he cant get staff.

I believe, sir, she said, he doesnt actually leave his home. Or the estate.

No, he doesnt play golf any more, Henry agreed. Too much likelihood some other player would remove his head with a four iron.

Ooh, sir.

Henry sighed. Ill talk to him, he said. Once.

Line two, sir. And thank you.

She left, and with heavy heart Henry picked up his phone, punched 2, and said, Monroe, Im doing my best.

Just name your price, said Monroes voice.

Henry had forgotten just how snotty Monroe habitually sounded. He held his irritation in check. Monroe, I always provided satisfactory service in the past. Id be happy to go on staffing your estate, but youve made it impossible. Its your actions, Monroe, your notoriety, not any ineptitude or indifference on my part.

When are people going to get over it?

People dont get over it when youre a pariah, Monroe.

Why do people keep using that word?

Well, Monroe, think about it.

I dont want to.

Every day, Monroe, Henry told him, I try to find people willing to go to work for you. Every day. Occasionally, I find someone.

Not for weeks!

Monroe, Henry said, do you believe Im doing my best for you?

There was a long silence on the other end of the line, followed by a long sigh. During the silence and the sigh, Henry felt his empathy at last slipping away, like the tide going out, and grew stronger, more cheerful and relaxed. He did not think, There but for the grace of God go I, because, having never faced the equivalent of Monroes temptations (opportunities), he assumed he would not have fallen for them.

At last Monroe spoke, not directly answering the question. People dont want to talk to me, he said. You dont want to talk to me.

Only because I dont have good news.

Listen, Monroe said, suddenly perking up. Why dont you and Gillian come out for dinner? When are you free? Tonight?

Oh, I dont think so, Monroe, Henry said. Let me just go on trying to find people willing to work for you. Oops, my other phone. And he slapped the plunger, to disconnect.

For a minute, Henry sat brooding, then he pushed the button to summon Bernice from her desk in the next office. When she came in, she was looking worried again. Good. Henry said, Bernice, would you like to go work for Monroe Hall?

She was astonished, and then appalled. Youre selling, sir?

Not a bit, Henry said. I dont mean work here, I mean work there. At Monroes place. Would you like that?

No, sir!

Youre happier working for me?

Very happy here, sir.

The next time Monroe calls, Im out.

Bernice sighed. Yes, sir.

| The Road to Ruin | c